Interview with a Young Composer

Meet Lev Mamuya, a seventeen-year-old composer and prize-winning cellist who will be performing in the premiere of Ingrain, his third composition for Winsor Music, on our April 12 concert at St. Paul's Church in Brookline. Winsor Music will introduce this new work in conversation with another world premiere by the critically acclaimed composer Andrew Waggoner, as well as classic works by Haydn, Bach, and Vivaldi. 

Our Artistic Director, Peggy Pearson, shared the following photo with us and writes: "This is what Lev looked like at his very first concert with Winsor Music, when he was only eleven years old! We're so proud of his growth as a cellist and composer. He's a very fine young man and a wonderful role model, and we wish him all the best as he moves on into the next stage of his life and career."

Lev is a senior at the Roxbury Latin School, and lives with his family in Newton, MA. In a recent interview, he spoke about his new piece, Ingrain, and his thoughts on music, composition, and the road ahead. For Lev's complete biography, please visit our Young Artists page.

For audience members who are new to Winsor, and who may not be familiar with you, can you tell us something about your compositional background? How many pieces have you completed so far?

I’ve taken composition lessons for about ten years, and I’ve finished a number of pieces —perhaps more in the past three or four years. I was in a chamber group with a clarinetist, a pianist, and a violinist... we were all composers and we’d put together programs of our own music, so I wrote a lot during my time with that group.


Do you mostly compose chamber music? Is that your favorite medium?

I’d say so; I’ve written for chorus, and then some for solo instruments, but most of the music that I’ve composed has been for 3-6 voices.


How would you describe your music to someone who has never heard it?

It’s certainly not hyper-modern; there’s a lot of influence from Ravel and Debussy, but also from Bartók and Shostakovich... it has what people associate with an American feel, like Barber.


If you had to choose one piece you've written (or that someone else has written) to describe your style or sound, what would it be?

It’s tough, because there are a lot of people that you want to sound like — you also know you shouldn’t sound exactly like those people — but there’s a lot of Ravel and Debussy, like La Mer, or the Ravel Duo for Violin and Cello, which are really impressive, and you come away saying, “I want to sound like that.” I think one of the best things I’ve written is a piece I finished this summer for chorus and piano, called Solace… We read through it this past summer at camp where I sing in the chorus, and hopefully it’s going to get performed this summer.


What can you tell us about Ingrain?

It’s based on a nine bar phrase which is really the larger product of a three bar phrase. The whole piece is like a theme and variations---kind of a cross between that and a rondo, with some elements of a fugue, because everything is built on that nine bar phrase. The title came from the idea that that one little bit of material is used so heavily over and over again.


Did that core piece of material come from another piece of music, or any particular thought process? Where did you find that core?

Oftentimes I’ll just sit at the piano and make up sketches of melodies for cello and piano, or some other arrangement that I feel comfortable writing for. These melodies aren’t necessarily very good, but then when I sit down to write a larger scale piece I’ll go back over them; sometimes I’ll end up with new themes and new materials and I’ll pick out themes from old ideas that never got finished. Pulling everything together and turning it into an actual piece happens only when I have to write a piece.



Why do you like writing for this particular combination of voices? (Oboe, violin, viola, two cellos; same instrumentation as The Eagle)

Peggy suggested this combination of instruments for The Eagle. I like it because the oboe is pretty different from the stringed instruments but can still blend with them. This piece isn't as emotionally serious or extensive in breadth as The Eagle. It’s a lot more about seeing what you can do with one melodic idea and stretching it with compositional techniques, which isn't something I've done before.


Maybe playing with the same idea as Ravel does in the Bolero? Playing with your technical abilities to see what you can do with this one melodic core?

Right. To a certain extent it came from Bach: the idea of a fugue and being based on a subject and countersubject, and how complex he was able to make a piece with the addition of different voices. I wouldn’t say that there are many parts which are fugue-like in it, but it came from that kind of idea.


Going forward, are you looking towards a career in cello, composition, both, or neither?

I’m looking for colleges that offer a combination of cello and academic programs. Hopefully I can continue to take composition lessons.  It’s helpful to have some sort of guidance and outside ear to listen to your work and see how other people might perceive it and give suggestions on how things could be more effective. But composition is personal and easy to keep up by yourself as well.


How does it feel to hear other people play what you’ve tried to express in your writing?

It’s difficult and I think that’s one of the benefits of having a teacher — you can compose something that makes perfect sense to you but for other musicians, it might be hard to read, or written in a way that’s difficult to play.  So it doesn’t come across the way you want it to, and you’ve got to think of a different solution. [Composing] is definitely personal, and I know if I’ve written something that’s been performed and that I come back to three or four years later, I can say I wish I could have done this differently. It’s personal every time you look at your work, but the process is about honing a lot of material into a form that is accessible so that the audience can take something away from the performance. For a six minute piece I might end up writing twelve or fourteen minutes of music in some incarnation, but obviously it doesn’t all end up in the piece.


You’re auditioning for colleges now and graduating from high school this spring. How does it feel to be premiering your last composition for Winsor before you go to college?

I don’t know, it’s kind of odd. [laughs] It’ll take some getting used to, I guess.